Part A: What Is It?
According to Max Weber, charismatic leadership is a style “resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him” (Palishkar, n.d.). While it may be institutional, or routinized, the term is more commonly taken to refer to purely personal charisma: “power legitimized on the basis of a leader’s exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers” (Swatos et al & Kendall et al). Charismatic leaders have the ability to elicit powerful and compelling emotional responses from their adherents. In essence, they are highly skilled communicators who excel at articulating a captivating vision and instilling a sense of purpose.
Part B: Charismatic Leaders & Impression Management
Impression management as a concept has its roots in Plato’s Republic with the allegory of Gyges’ Ring, which explores times’ contradictory actions required of either being just or seem just. Since charismatic leadership relies so heavily on how a leader interacts with, and is perceived by his followers, it stands to reason that maintaining consistency of authority would require careful management of that relationship and the impressions and perceptions that inform it. If a charismatic leader is a symbol simultaneously generating and benefitting from authority, the image he presents to his followers must be consistent and congruent with followers’ expectations, and therefore must be carefully managed and expertly targeted.
Part C: The Double-Edged Sword
Because charismatic leaders typically exercise such profound influence over their supporters, those supporters often find themselves vulnerable to a potential betrayal of trust. This could have several forms. Most obviously, the leader could find himself unable to meet the demands and expectations of his followers; a personal failing might compromise his image in a crucial or even catastrophic way. It is possible, for example, to become addicted to the positive feedback and validation associated with such a leadership style, either dissuading the leader from taking unpopular positions or simply being “corrupted by power” (Evje, 2012). Due to the strong emotions associated with the person of the leader, this could inspire a strong counter-reaction, tarnishing the image of the movement or organization as a whole. When a single person comes to dominate the dialogue surrounding a movement, then the movement as a whole is vulnerable to being damaged if that person, or their image, is compromised in a serious way.
Similarly, such a leader may either intentionally or unintentionally undermine institutions of horizontal accountability, consolidating power and authority himself. While this can lead to a highly agile and adaptable organization unhindered by bureaucratic gridlock, it also often leads to inconsistent performance. Some scholars suggest that such a mechanism has provided a stumbling block for countries undergoing democratization in Latin America: populist movements might elect inspirational leaders who enjoy wide support, but who ultimately appropriate state resources for their own agendas and who often adopt more authoritarian or dictatorial leadership styles, as they become more comfortable in office. Thus, many nations in the region have found themselves struggling to move beyond electoralism (?) to more advanced and liberal forms of democracy: checks and balances simply have not been instituted with any real consequence (Plattner, 2010; Diamond, 1999).
In conclusion, a movement dependent on a charismatic leader is only as strong as that leader is. In some instances the charismatic style can be highly beneficial insofar as it provides a powerful symbol and a focal point for politically salient sentiment—Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Ghandi come to mind and the loss of the leader can even have a galvanizing effect on the movement. In other situations, for the reasons briefly outlined above, it can have a compromising effect.